Achievement Re-defined - Making Miracles with Our Own Hands
Rabbi Howard Ruben
Just a few hours ago, the JCHS theater company performed on the international stage at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. This afternoon's first Fringe Festival performance of "The Metamorphosis" -- an original stage setting for Kafka's existential masterwork as if performed by a Jewish theater troupe in the Warsaw Ghetto -- drew rave reviews. I heard audience members exclaim, "Gripping," Haunting," Fast-paced," "Had me on the edge of my seat." This afternoon was the first of four JCHS performances in Edinburgh.
It was a kind of miracle to watch our students-- onceagain so powerfully engaging an audience with the power of their storytelling, the passion of their stagecraft, and the depth of their commitment to each other through their art. As I think of the many 'miracles' that brought JCHS to this moment -- the many talented students whose stage productions over the years attracted national attention, the extraordinary guidance provided by Dylan Russell and her professional colleagues who nurtured in our students a love for dramatic and technical arts, and the many generous donors who raised the funds needed to share this powerful drama in Edinburgh -- there are echoes to this week's Torah portion, Ekev.
In parshat Ekev, Moshe recounts the many miracles that brought our people through their wilderness journey to the edge of the Promised Land. Ironically, the purpose of recounting these divine miracles is to teach a moral lesson about the power of human initiative and action in our lives. As Rabbi Berel Wein suggests, the master-lesson of Moshe's recounting the miracles is not to aggrandize God, but rather to demonstrate the importance of human conduct.
For example, Moshe reminds our ancient ancestors of the miracle of manna falling from heaven, when the Torah text reads, "For not by bread alone shall we live, rather by the word of God." (Devarim 8:3.)
But there must be more to this sentence than meets the eye, because we know our lives do not literally hang on God's words. Rather, our conduct is divinely inspired -- to achieve standards of excellence in justice and mercy, healing and hope. God's words alone do not clothe the naked or feed the hungry -- inspired individuals accomplish that. God's words alone do not care for the sick or protect the vulnerable -- inspired communities accomplish that. In other words, the Torah can be read to say, "For not by bread alone shall we live [even bread as miraculous as manna in the wilderness], but rather we live [to our highest potential when we are inspired to just and merciful action] by the words of God."
In this sense, Moshe is redefining "achievement" to mean setting our conduct toward fulfillment of divine goals -- not merely following rules for their own sake. As in the Torah portion, for our students in Edinburgh, the miracle of their achievement is not merely being invited to perform in Edinburgh. Just as a student's accomplishment in the classroom is not merely the grade on a test. Rather, the miracle of achievement is a result of initiative and action directed at an inspired goal.
For our students in Edinburgh, this is reflected through the ways in which the company has overcome hurdles and doubts in order to create a supportive, encouraging ensemble. The improvisation, physical style, and unique dialogue in this production have all severely tested the cast. They accomplished it beautifully working as individuals and by supporting each other in profound ways.
For our students in Edinburgh, this also means carrying hundreds of toothbrushes to be donated to those in homeless shelters, orphanages, and others who care for the vulnerable. The toothbrushes were donated by a noble charity on the condition that our students identified appropriate recipients and made the delivery themselves.
The cast has been researching who could most use the donation and how best to make deliveries. During time they could have been watching more shows or sightseeing, our students will be taking the inspired initiative and necessary actions to help others.
In Edinburgh, at JCHS, and in our day and age, 'miracles' like this are the result of human initiative and conduct -- often divinely inspired. Daily miracles are in our hands. May the week ahead bring many wonderful opportunities to bring 'miracles' into the lives of others through our own initiative and conduct.
The Jewish Community High School of the Bay (JCHS) is a unique college preparatory high school committed to integrating deep learning, universal wisdom, and Jewish values. We empower each student to embrace her or his Jewish identity, generate empathy and compassion, delight in lifelong education, and improve the world.